"The body is not so healthy, but the mind is healthy."

1. the staffroom's free snack section, featuring fourteen different types of coffee

The Japanese work-life balance is (in)famous for hardly existing. It’s par for the course for people to work until early in the morning and arrive back at their desks that same morning. Convenience stores advertise caffeinated shot drinks not to clubbers seeking to party until the early hours, but to exhausted workers trying to stay awake at their desks. At the school where I work, teachers will regularly leave their desks after 7pm, having arrived there a full 12 hours earlier – and that’s just a normal day. Weekends are frequently spent at school too, supervising club activities and supplementary lessons.

2. a teacher stands in the staffroom

My aim for this project was to interrogate Japanese understandings of health and wellbeing in relation to work. How do work and the life outside of it combine, intermingle, and compress each other? And what effect does this have on the body and mind?

3. a teacher's desk, photographed mid-afternoon

I asked some of my colleagues what ‘healthiness’ meant to them in relation to work as well as more generally. Their answers placed great emphasis on the necessity of good health for a satisfying, independent life. Within a culture that enjoys perhaps the best overall health in the world¹, this is an interesting indication that good health is not taken for granted, but still cherished and pursued as a priority.

4. a teacher laughs, at the beginning of the school day

Answers also indicated a focus on mental state as a key aspect in determining one’s health status, an important observation given the perception of Japan as a place where poor mental health is frequently stigmatised².

5. a teacher's desk, photographed late afternoon

One respondent acknowledged a mind-body separation in his thinking, commenting that whilst his body was not so healthy, his mind – which implicitly took priority – was. Another defined healthiness as “life without anxiety”. These answers point to a much broader definition of health than something merely concerned with the physical, and I was struck by this inclusive rhetoric.

6. a teacher in front of the daily attendance record board

When asked about their personal health, many of my colleagues declined to go into much detail, relating simply that, by and large, they felt healthy – especially in the morning, or after exercising – and that health “meant more” to them than just keeping trim. Lacking verbal information, I turned to their desks, where many sit and work for long hours, to seek out visual information. Desks, after all, often become a microcosm of their owners' lives, reflecting their habits, stresses, preferences and ways of thinking.

7. a teacher's desk, photographed mid-morning

Desks were frequently cluttered, yet the clutter was underlaid by a sense of 'organised chaos'. Calendars and timetables were prominent. Phones - both mobile and desktop - were not tucked out of sight, but lay amongst textbooks and documents, repeatedly flashing. Many items were colour-coded, and indeed colour featured strongly: desks were decorated with personal photographs, brightly covered notebooks and charts, and even sweets and chocolates used for aesthetic purposes. The space beneath desks was occupied by teaching tools, but also tins of chocolates, snacks, clothes, and other personal items. Many teachers had notes or drawings from their children secured safely underneath their desks' protective clear plastic covering, and most had a family photograph as the background to their computer.

8. a teacher outside the school building

Photographing these spaces of work, I had the strong sense that these were - to an almost equal extent - spaces of life too. From photographs of loved ones displayed prominently on many surfaces, to fiction books and journals stowed among rows of textbooks and teaching manuals for when downtime is needed, the personal and the professional commingle in these workspaces to a much greater extent than in my previous experiences of office environments: where a small note tacked to the side of a computer screen, or at most an even more inconspicuous photo of one's partner or family, would be the only sign of one's personal life.

9. a desk, photographed late afternoon

How can these spaces teach us about concepts of health? I suggest that an unusually close blend of work and non-work within the working space might support positive mental health, an aspect repeatedly touched upon by those I spoke to. Unable to take much time out of intensive schedules to exercise or spend significant time with family or friends, Japanese teachers incorporate parts of themselves and their loved ones into their place of work to try to maintain a life "free from anxiety" and bolstered by connection. I'd be fascinated to see whether these observations hold too for teachers in other countries, for whom the demands of the job are surely similarly taxing on health.

10. a desk, photographed mid-afternoon

¹ Ikeda et al., 2011. "What has made the population of Japan healthy?" Lancet, 378(9796):1094-105.

² Ando et al., 2013. "Review of mental-health-related stigma in Japan." Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 67(7):471-82.

©2023 by Imogen Malpas. 

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